I am starting to grow apprehensive of Avengers movies. I’ll admit that this is one step better than my previous feelings towards them, which had begun to nose-dive towards outright apathy. My own je n’ai mare attitude towards them were not only seeded by the disappointing Age of Ultron, but also by a sense of exhaustion at just how many there are now. Maybe it’s the frequency at which they churn each entry out. Maybe it’s the constant repetition in plot structure. Maybe it’s the thundering juggernaut pairing of FX and CGI that seems to have grown to overwhelming, Hulk-like stature since the series’ beginnings. Whatever it is, Avengers movies have become film’s equivalent of a good steak - irresistible in moderation, but far harder to chew on when the next one comes at you with barely enough time to digest the last.
All of that weariness has evaporated upon viewing Civil War. My apprehension now stems from wondering if there’s ever going to be a time in my life when a Marvel movie won’t dominate the box office. Even if Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy breathed new IP life into the company’s Hollywood machine, all evidence pointed towards the likelihood that Marvel’s flagship Avengers saga would continue to grow stale. Make no mistake - this may have Captain America in the title like before, but Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is almost a support character in a movie whose screen time is democratically divided up to give his Avenger buddies near-equal billing. This is an Avengers film in all but name. But thanks to some welcomely fresh directing, wonderfully cohesive writing and brilliantly-handled character debuts, this is also, without question, the best work Marvel has produced in its Cinematic Universe’s 8-year run.
It would be impossible not to give comparison to DC Comics’ ill-contrived Batman v Superman when discussing Civil War’s setup. Both share the same premise - superheroes facing the growing distrust of the people they swore to protect, and evil geniuses manipulating the situation to turn them against one another. This time around, the Avengers are faced with enduring a PR disaster of global proportions, following their clumsy handling of previous nemesis Ultron - whose defeat also led to the complete collapse of the fictional European nation of Sokovia. When this incident is then followed up by a botched prevention measure in Nigeria against Hydra agent Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo, now masquerading as masked mercenary Crossbones), the 11 civilian deaths that result from the ensuing mayhem force the UN into action. The Security Council pressures the US Secretary of State, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), into drawing up and handing the Avengers the Sokovia Accords - a mandate declaring the superhero unit answerable to an international panel. The first stipulation of the mandate is simple - only said panel will determine whether or not they will be sent into action during events of global conflict. The second is even simpler - the Avengers have no choice but to accept the agreement, or face immediate retirement.
The choice seems obvious - Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in particular, aggrieved by a recent confrontation with the mother of a young man who died in the Sokovia incident, expects his team-mates to tow the line for the sake of global peace. But Captain America, ever the patriot to see such a proposal as an obstacle to rightful justice, refuses to put pen to paper. It’s a conflict of opinion that splits the team in two - Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) sign the mandate alongside Iron Man, while Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and new member Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) join Cap in holding out.
This tenuous, touchpaper scenario is then ignited by yet another catastrophe - the bombing of the UN building in Vienna, right in the middle of a summit discussing the Sokovia crisis. It is not long until the main suspect for the attack is revealed, either. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), better known as The Winter Soldier, the brainwashed, assassin nemesis of Captain America’s previous solo movie - and his former long-time friend - is now sought by German special forces. Troubled by Bucky’s resurfacing and determined to discover the real truth behind his transformation, Captain America goes rogue to bring him in - setting him on a path to the real shadows that are threatening to tear the Avengers apart, and the mastermind puppeteering them.
Still following? Good - because mercifully, that’s about as convoluted as Civil War gets. It does have the fortune of having considerably stronger foundations to build its plot upon, compared to its DC counterpart (Batman v Superman only had Man of Steel, and still managed to make a mess of that), but the sheer menagerie of characters, side-plots, themes and loose ends that the Avengers world is now juggling makes for an Atlassian task to keep it all making sense. So it’s all the more commendable that the combined talent of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, plus the directive vision of Joe and Anthony Russo, have led to the production of a film that has immense clarity for the profusive goings-on within it. This success is further amplified by the audaciousness that comes with throwing even more character cameos and debuts into the mix. Whoever said that ‘less is more’, didn’t realise that ‘more’ is totally fine, so long as you have the means and talent to manage it.
Additional characters and an explosive opening act aren’t exactly signs of new tricks being brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe though. After all, these are well-worn cobblestones on the tried path that Marvel uses to deliver its high-impact and attemptedly high-brow action drama. Throw in dialogue-dense character development, an over-abundance of witty retorts and the odd humourous skit, and you pretty much have the entire core of Marvel’s story-telling tools - as well as the overused devices that are causing their films to wear thin. But while the same ingredients may persist, Civil War’s recipe is a thoroughly improved formula. The script retains the standard Avengers thematics but completely trims the fat. The dependency on etching out further details for the characters we already know about is almost absent, and a far greater focus has been placed on a tight, terse story flow that refuses to allow proceedings to loiter for a second. Scenes remain on screen just as long as they’re supposed to, and even the screen-sized captions stating each new location the plot moves to feel like hurried tour guides asking their followers to keep up. Almost every single one of Civil War’s 147 minutes is used efficiently, swiftly and wisely, meaning the film never loses its urgency. At a point in this sprawling comic saga when new episodes could be expected to have their entertainment diluted through the same repeated themes, Civil War exceeds pacing expectations. It feels genuinely fresh, fluid and most of all, important.
By cutting the cruft out of its story mechanics, Civil War then has ample room to allow its acting talent to shine - and without question, do they seize the opportunity. There are almost too many high-calibre performances from its exhaustive cast, and its ‘regulars’ - that surely-by-now budget-heavy trinity of Johansson, Downey Jr. and Evans - continue to play out their well-worn roles with vigour, even with what must have been a growing temptation to just phone it in. Paul Bettany deserves just as much recognition as his headline stars though. With the amount of time he is now given to portray Vision, he is able to turn Age of Ultron’s awakened computer AI made synthetic being into a likeable, contradictory balance of philosophical super-intelligence and genuine human-like naivety. His scenes alongside Olsen are one of the highlights of the film, the pair of them exhibiting a complimentary chemistry that sets a compelling platform to build upon in future movies. Paul Rudd’s contribution too, is similarly noteworthy. Reprising his role as Ant-Man, he brings with him all the everyman charisma and offbeat humor that made his titular debut movie a success. His glorified cameo as a last-minute ally during the movie’s pivotal Avenger v Avenger battle is just as entertaining - and as funny - as any of the numerous highlights this movie possesses, and he is certain to be an excellent addition to future Avengers entries.
But for all the acting talent on show here, it is the equally-vaunted first-time character debuts that truly excel. Daniel Bruhl, stepping into the role of arch-villain Colonel Zemo, plays his part with a suitably menacing, sadistic poise that feels very reminiscent of the better Bond villains (and if he doesn’t end up playing similar antagonists in that franchise, I’ll be very surprised). Much too, has been made of how the arrivals of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) would fit into the already-crowded character landscape that this series already has going on. The answer to that is, pretty seamlessly - and both have provided performances that mark the enormous on-screen potential of the former, and the unlikely rejuvenation of the latter. Boseman offers both convincing grace and a bad-ass edge to T’Challa, whose quest to avenge his father’s death at the UN bombing serves as a wonderful side-plot. Holland meanwhile, may not only be the answer to the Spider-Man question that has been lingering since Toby Maguire’s departure from the role. If given further movies, he may even exceed Maguire’s own bar-setting performances. He captures the essence of a young Peter Parker brilliantly - both his awkwardness, and his combined apprehension and awe at his new-found web-slinging abilities. As the stand-out humour character of the whole film, he is just the kind of casting that could re-kindle interest in Spider-Man as a movie franchise, so soon after it seemed to be flogged to death.
With the cast on such high form - and the writing, for once, being so unwasteful - it would have been acceptable for the film to leave itself at that, and still remain free to regard itself as a great superhero flick. But Civil War is aiming for the stars (and stripes) here, and isn’t self-content without going a few extra yards to realize its full potential. A reduction in overblown CG is a massive contributor to how much more focused and fine-tuned the action sequences feel this time round. Their stunning, immaculate choreography also serves another crafty purpose - to make the scenes so gripping that they form a canny veil for the genuinely surprising plot twists that spring up in the film’s tremendous climax. Obviously, to get to that climax, one must also endure the tired trove of snarky one-liners and the occasional, overwhelming assault of sound that the movie emulates from its forerunners now and then. But these are but minor flaws. Captain America’s third movie is pure Marvel excitement at its most compacted and concise. And that means it’s also at its best too.